Salman Rushdie: ‘I like black comedy in dark times’

The acclaimed novelist on his love of satire, Philip Roth and the death of the American dream

Salman Rushdie is an internationally successful British-Indian author. His second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981), won the Booker prize and was subsequently awarded “The Booker of Bookers” and “The Best of the Bookers” in 1993 and 2008. He has written children’s books, nonfiction and a memoir, Joseph Anton (2012), which reflected on the controversy around his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988). Knighted in 2007, and now 70, Rushdie moved from Britain to the US in 2000. He has served as the president of PEN American Center and been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Golden House (Vintage, £8.99), his 14th novel, is now out in paperback.

The Golden House reflects on life as it has recently unfolded around us, from the US elections to post-truth politics and the debate on gender identity. Did it require a new approach to writing fiction?
Yes. In a way, you’re not meant to do this. One is told it’s better to wait until you have perspective and distance. I deliberately wanted to go against this and write a book about exactly the moment in which it is being written. It’s risky; if you do it wrong, it becomes almost immediately irrelevant, like yesterday’s newspapers. But if you do it better than that, you’ll capture the reality of a moment that will be relevant in the future. It’s very difficult in a novel to accommodate a reality that is changing at the time and I was trying to wrestle with the incredible shifts.

It begins with the inauguration of Barack Obama and ends with the election of “The Joker”, who seems like a satirical version of Donald Trump. Did you begin writing it the morning after he was elected?
Not at all. I’d almost finished writing it by then; I had to do a tiny bit of tailoring, but the Trump stuff was secondary. I wanted to capture what was in the air in that decade [from Obama to Trump]. The strange thing was, even though I was hoping for the opposite election result, the book was clearly heading in the direction of what happened in reality. Sometimes the work of fiction can be wiser than the artist.

It’s highly political but there’s also some fierce satire and fantastic comedy in it. Did you set out to make readers laugh?
I like black comedy, particularly in dark times. The blacker the comedy, the more truthful it gets. I think it’s more important to have satire in these times. It’s a sharp tool and it has often been used in very difficult times. You could argue that the literature of Soviet Russia was sharper and better than that of post-Soviet Russia because they had a target.

You interrogate – and dismantle – the American dream through the central figure of Nero Golden, an Indian billionaire with a murky past who reinvents himself in America. What do you think the American dream means today?
There’s not much left of the American dream. If you live in New York, the recent issues and politics are so alarming. It doesn’t feel like a city on a hill or a New Jerusalem. Nero is symbolic of some of the corruption rife at the moment. I asked myself the question of whether it could be possible to create such a dark figure and yet to make the reader feel compassion for him, whatever he might have done, and I did this by making him a loving parent.

Speaking of dismantling the American dream, did you know Philip Roth?
Yes I did, and I love the honesty of Roth. Nothing is off limits, everything is nakedly there. He called me about three or four months before he died. We talked about the annual Philip Roth Lecture at Newark Library. He asked me if I could give it this September and I told himI would – if Philip Roth calls you and asks you to give the annual Philip Roth Lecture, you do it. He told me he’d read The Golden House and said I’d completely nailed what was going on in the country. I was really touched. You don’t expect your literary hero to read your work.

One of the novel’s characters - Nero’s youngest son - is gender fluid. Were you apprehensive about taking on this conversation?
t’s a bit of a minefield, but that was not a reason for not looking at it. I know two people who have fully transitioned. In both cases, it has been very successful and both are much happier people. I felt they were my entry point, but I wanted to go beyond my own knowledge so I found out stuff by talking to a lot of people. One of the reasons this book has not had much flak on this issue may be because I didn’t want to say, ‘This is right, this is wrong”, but rather to say, “Here is what is happening, here is a character who is very anguished about it. Let’s look at the anguish.”

Which genres do you enjoy reading?
At one point in my life, when I was much younger, I read a lot of science fiction. I’d read the famous ones like Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, but I was also addicted to the hard stuff: there was one magazine called Astounding and another one was Amazing. Nowadays I have quite broad interests but I’m reading less and less contemporary fiction. I’m more likely to be rereading Madame Bovary and Lolita than this year’s hot book. I don’t read a lot of thrillers, but I do like a certain amount of spy fiction such as le Carré and so on.

Do you prefer to read on paper or a screen?
I’ve trained myself to read on an iPad when I’m travelling. Otherwise I still prefer to read physical books.

Which classic novel are you most ashamed not to have read?
Middlemarch. I always get beaten up for it. I owned up to it on TV once – when they still had books programmes on TV – and the newspapers said: “He calls himself a writer!”

Who is your favourite literary hero or heroine?
Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, even though he eats food I can’t stand, like offal, beef and inner organs. He’s one of the all-time great literary figures.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which books and authors have stayed with you since childhood?
I was a hugely obsessive reader, a real bookworm. My parents were very smart and didn’t force me to read just “good” books, so Batman comics were OK. It meant I got the bug at an early age. A lot of writers emerge from the cocoon of being great readers. Growing up in Bombay, I read whatever western children’s literature we got there; we didn’t get Winnie-the-Pooh so I discovered it much later. I read Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons.

Which book/author do you return to?
The books I go to again and again are Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and Humboldt’s Gift. I also go to Dickens quite regularly.

To order The Golden House for £7.64 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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